Members of the have vowed to keep up their efforts to retain as municipal property after a financial crunch and calls from the former transition chairman for Mayor Daryl Finizio renewed fears that the property could be sold to the .
Finizio called a special City Council meeting on Friday “to discuss the potential purchase and sale of real estate by the city of New London.” The meeting was cancelled due to concerns over whether it would violate the Freedom of Information Act, but Finizio met individually with councilors before announcing that New London faces a .
Finizio said the methods to address the budget crunch could include selling city assets, but referred to his past position on Riverside Park when asked if the property was under consideration. During his campaign, Finizio was opposed to the proposed sale of about half of the 18-acre park to the Coast Guard Academy for $2.9 million.
The question went before voters at the November ballot, and was defeated in a close vote after a .
Calls from de Vars
Ronna Stuller and Kathleen Mitchell, members of the Friends of Riverside Conservancy, each said they received a phone call before the meeting from Allyn de Vars, who prior to Finizio taking office. de Vars is no longer employed by Finizio, but said the mayor sometimes consults with him on issues.
“I’m still not really sure whether he was acting on behalf of the mayor, if he knew me and wanted to put out feelers about the option of using Riverside Park as a means to resolve the budget crisis,” said Stuller. “I think he did want to assure me that the budget crisis is real, and I’m not one of the people that doubts this.”
Stuller said their discussion included talk about the budget situation, and that she concluded from the conversation that the sale of Riverside Park is under consideration since the academy is a known potential buyer.
“He definitely presented it as a possible option, and I think in part he was seeking other opinions and other options,” said Stuller. "But the idea of selling the park for obviously a lot more than $2.9 million was one of the things that was being considered.”
Mitchell said de Vars discussed the budget situation with her, and she told him she had heard one offer from the academy would give $5 million to the city as well as the promise that the national Coast Guard museum would be located in New London. She said de Vars responded, “Try $15 million.”
“He made no bones about it when he called me that he was calling for the mayor,” said Mitchell.
Response from de Vars
de Vars said he has known Finizio, Mitchell, and Stuller since about 2005. He said the calls were personal rather than on behalf of the mayor, and that he made them to assuage concerns regarding Riverside Park. de Vars said he had also noticed that Mitchell had started posting about the park in online forums following the announcement of its meeting.
“It’s just the way she operates she goes out she beats on the drum really hard and my intentions there were just saying, ‘Hey, wait until the whole picture comes out,’” he said.
de Vars said the discussion of a sales price was more theoretical, and that Mitchell said the conservancy considers that the park is not for sale at any price. He said Finizio has said publicly and privately that his position on the park has not changed, and recalled that Finizio had stated prior to taking office that he considered the initial tally supporting the sale moot because the .
“We fought like hell to support the park during his campaign and it’s not his desire to put that park up for sale,” said de Vars.
“I think that the mayor probably meant during his campaign that he didn’t want to sell Riverside Park, but he may not have realized the reality of the situation,” said Mitchell.
Mitchell said she thinks Finizio is under pressure from the academy and other officials to make the sale, and is considering whether to ask a City Council subcommittee to investigate the academy’s connection with municipal affairs. She said she also believes the academy has enough room to meet its expansion needs on campus and that the conservancy remains committed to retaining the park.
“We will go to any lengths to save that park,” said Mitchell.
Stuller said the conservancy was organized as an open space group to maintain and renovate the park, but would renew its political efforts if a sale is announced. She said the conservancy may have a statement on the matter after its regular meeting on Wednesday.
“My view was what it’s always been: that the park can’t be on the table,” said Stuller. “I don’t think it will solve the budget issue even in the short run. It would be a huge breach of trust to the mayor’s supporters.”
Note: a blog from Kathleen Mitchell regarding Riverside Park will post at 10:30 a.m. this morning.